Jazz In Strange Places

THE HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD IS FULL of writers made bitter by watching their work mangled onscreen. Michael Ondaatje is not one of them. He is so enamored of the screen version of his 1999, novel, "The English Patient," that he's been on a multicontinent promotion tour. He and writer-director Anthony Minghella have even done readings together, performing scenes from the novel and film script. While Minghella wrote the screenplay, the two men and producer Saul Zaentz debated everything from the music to the heroine's hairstyle. But ultimately, the movie was Minghella's, and Ondaatje clearly views it as a minor miracle. "What Anthony did was incredible," he says. "He had to make it completely different, but it seems to be the same."

Well, sort of. The film has become an Event, with 12 Academy Award nominations, and it has turned the book into a best seller, with a million copies in print. There was even a hint of controversy, with charges that the movie glossed over the Nazi past of the historical figure who spired the hero, Count Laszlo de Almasy.

Ondaatje is not convinced that Almasy was a Nazi spy: "People who've been tracking him for years still don't know which side he was on." In any case, private passions trump politics in all his novels, whether the obsession is the desert or a woman. He creates "fictions growing out of facts"; earlier riffs on history include "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid" and "Coming Through Slaughter," based on the doomed jazz musician Buddy Bolden. "The English Patient" grew from an account of a German spy who infiltrated Cairo with the help of an old desert hand. Ondaatje began reading texts by 1950s explorers in North Africa--men who were oblivious to politics. "These were guys who were obsessed with the surface of the earth," he says. "A civil war could be breaking out 10 miles away, and they're trying to find the right fossil."

Though he's lived in Toronto since 1962, Ondaatje retains an otherworldly air. Born in Sri Lanka, he looks like a cross between Paul Newman and Zeus. "Running in the Family," his lush, dark family memoir of the Jazz Age in the tropics, braids together tales of his hard-partying ancestors. His grandmother drowns drank in a monsoon, dying "in the blue arms of a jacaranda tree." His alcoholic father ends a binge by jumping naked from a train. At 11, Ondaatje moved with his mother to London. For a boy who'd never worn socks, attending Dulwich Academy--P. G. Wodehouse's alma mater--was "like being on Mars."

Though Macedonians, blacks, cowboys and Sikhs crowd Ondaatje's stories, they are less about culture clash than culture melt. His books are full of the sound of jazz in strange places. In "The English Patient," Almasy relaxes in Cairo by playing a record of "Honeysuckle Rose." "All my books have Fats Waller in them," laughs Ondaatje, "and the odd sarong."